Home / Opinion / Views /  What the risk of US-China conflict over Taiwan means for India

Political parties anywhere in the world that have lasted long in power have done so by also being able to use foreign policy to support regime interests. As one of the longest surviving ruling parties in the world, it is no surprise then that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has honed to a fine art its ability to communicate and interpret foreign policy or international issues to the Chinese public in a manner that burnishes its legitimacy to rule. But as China has grown into a global economic power, the CCP has also been able to shape and set the terms of international narratives.

Beijing’s military is exercising in the wake of the visit earlier this month of the US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. Coming amidst the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, the exercises have set off international concerns about a potential US-China conflict over the island. These concerns play into the CCP’s hands for a number of reasons.

One, the international community denies the Taiwanese any agency in their own affairs or about their future by making this a US-China issue. This effectively undermines not just the democratic polity that exists in Taiwan but also what India and other democratic political systems see as the legitimate global norm of a liberal international order that expands the space for democracies. This order is something the CCP-led Chinese state has long tried to chip away at because it perceives the existence of democracies as challenging its own authoritarian brand of politics at home.

Two, concerns over a Taiwan conflict also forget to raise a fundamental question about the legitimacy of the Chinese claim over Taiwan. This claim is a relatively recent one in Chinese history—even the CCP did not double down on it until several decades into its existence. But it speaks to the effectiveness of Chinese propaganda and domination of the narrative that Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters can emphatically state on CNN that “Taiwan is part of China".

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Three, fears of an imminent Chinese invasion of Taiwan draw too much from the immediate context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and once again allow the Beijing to exploit and to extract concessions from the international community. This is not to say that Chinese threats should not be taken seriously. The latest Chinese military exercises around Taiwan have gone further than any so far with a combination of missile tests, median line crossings by military vessels and exercise areas overlapping with Taiwan’s territorial waters. However, China will not be following a schedule for a military invasion of Taiwan—if ever it comes to that—according to a timetable set by foreign media or other countries.

The danger really is in the normalisation of such exercises over time. India should know a thing or two about this. Chinese transgressions on the LAC in 2020 achieved their element of surprise and resultant successes by years of conditioning of Indian security agencies to large-scale PLA exercises every summer opposite Ladakh.

Given a history of recent incidents—Depsang in 2013, Chumar in 2014, Doklam in 2017 and Galwan in 2020—it should be obvious that Chinese assertiveness on the LAC and in India's neighbourhood is going to be a permanent feature. Under the circumstances, what happens with respect to Taiwan has learnings for India and vice-versa. A position on Taiwan is also a test of India's commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Four, to return to Chinese domestic politics, analyses that argue that Xi Jinping needs a crisis as a way of bolstering his position in the run-up to the 20th CCP Congress at the end of the year, over-read the intensity and efficacy of opposition to him within the Party. Once again, Indians should understand this aspect a lot better—if most Indians view their ruling party a shoo-in for a third term in elections in such a complex, diverse polity, how hard can it be for a strongman in an authoritarian party-state to stack the odds in his favour at a congress of 2,300 odd delegates? And especially when he has for nearly a decade now conducted intensive anti-corruption campaigns targeting opposition within the party as well as crackdowns to punish the tendency to ignore party diktats in academia and industry—particularly, China’s high tech sector?

Indirectly, such references to Xi’s ‘compulsions’ also help promote Xi’s persona and stature in international politics as well as help him further consolidate his centrality to Chinese politics. Once again this fits well with China’s attempts to undermine the international liberal order by driving a tendency elsewhere too—not least in Western media and polities—to identify countries and their foreign policies with their leaders from Brazil’s Bolsonaro to Turkey’s Erdogan to Russia’s Putin and until recently, America’s Trump. When democracies too privilege personalities over institutional processes, consider this a victory for Xi and the CCP’s brand of politics.

Finally, let us also not forget perhaps the biggest gain for the CCP from the Pelosi visit—the opportunity to whip up nationalist hysteria at home against the US and against Taiwan serves the CCP regime to cover up a multitude of domestic economic problems.

Unemployment in the 16-24 age category hit a record high in June this year with some one in five out of work and households are threatening to stop paying the mortgage on flats they have not been able to take possession of as Chinese property developers default to the tune of billions of dollars. This is not going to be an easy situation to resolve for the Chinese banking system without massive write-offs or for the central and local governments without offering huge bailouts. With the pressure on economic recovery from their zero-Covid as well as a global economic slowdown, China’s leaders are going to be unable to raise the income share of their country’s GDP anytime soon. Under these circumstances, attention to foreign slights real or imagined offers the CCP convenient distractions.

Given New Delhi’s own experiences at the receiving end of Chinese violations of treaty obligations on the LAC and false narratives built up around these instances, there is a case to be made for the Indian government and analysts to pay greater attention to the domestic imperatives driving Chinese foreign and security policies and to shape India’s counter-narratives and responses accordingly.

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